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Members of a military panel charged with studying the sexual-assault problem at the Air Force Academy didn't give the officers in charge there a slap on the wrist; they gave them a pat on the back.

A thirteen-member "working group," assembled by Air Force Secretary James Roche earlier this year after he learned about allegations of rape and retribution at the academy, found "no systemic acceptance of sexual assault at the Academy, no institutional avoidance of responsibility, or systemic maltreatment of cadets who report sexual assault. Instead, the Working Group found considerable attention to programs intended to avoid incidents of sexual assault and to support victims."

That conclusion makes attorney James Cox wonder just which military school the group was studying. "That seems contrary to what the Air Force has already conceded, to what's caused the personnel changes and to what has led to all these investigations," says Cox, who represents six female cadets who claim they were sexually assaulted by male cadets.

Although Roche asked the Air Force inspector general to conduct a separate look into the academy's handling of specific cases after members of Congress and the press exposed the issue (The War Within," January 30), the working group was asked to look into overall practices dating back ten years. The committee, chaired by Air Force General Counsel Mary Walker, released a 215-page report last week that found 142 sexual-assault allegations since January 1993, 93 of which involved cadet victims and cadet suspects. However, the academy investigated only 61 cases, forty of which were reportedly cadet-on-cadet crimes. Fifty-five percent of those assaults occurred in dorms; 40 percent involved alcohol; and 35 percent reportedly occurred while the victim was either sleeping or unconscious from drinking. Forty-five percent of cadet suspects went on to graduate.

The working group seemed to actually fault victims, in part, for the lack of investigated claims and for insufficient evidence. To encourage cadets to come forward, in 1993 the superintendent altered academy rules to allow victims to go to people outside of their chain of command. As a result of the working group's investigation, command-chain officers will now have to be informed of such assaults, and victims will not be guaranteed anonymity.

Despite its soft stance on academy leaders -- most notably, former superintendent John Dallager and commandant of cadets Taco Gilbert, who have been reassigned along with two other top-ranking officers -- the group did take issue with some of the academy's practices. For example, the report confirmed that many victims are not adequately advised of their legal rights and often don't learn what, if any, discipline their perpetrator received. The committee also reprimanded the academy for not stressing that rape is wrong. "The Academy offers a number of sexual-assault awareness and character briefings," the report states. "However, none of these briefings makes the actual connection that persons of character do not place themselves in certain situations, take advantage of others in what could be a compromising situation, or condone such behaviors in others."

In addition to the ongoing Air Force inspector general's investigation, the Defense Department inspector general and an independent panel named by the defense secretary are looking into sexual assaults at the academy. Cox hopes the other investigations won't be whitewashed, too: "I would have thought at this point that this kind of report would be a thing of the past."


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